Paly principal gains new perspective from visit to Egypt

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People were out for the Friday prayer; in their midst was an American tourist. They crowded around and begged to take pictures of her with their families. "Are you American?" They asked through friendly chatter. "We like you. We just don’t like your president."

The place is the Sultan Hussein Mosque in Cairo, Egypt; the American is Palo Alto High School principal Sandra Pearson on her first trip to Egypt over winter break. "People were out and it was so interesting because everyone so friendly," Pearson said recalling the experience.

Pearson has longed to visit Egypt with her husband Professor Emeritus Scott Pearson for 40 years, ever since her days on the Peace Corp in Nigeria. It was in the winter of 2002 that she finally got her chance with the Stanford Alumni Travel Study Program, in which her husband served as the lecturer. "Egypt has always been one of those places we yearned to go to," Pearson said. "It lived up to our expectations."

Pearson experienced the many antiquities of Egypt, including the great pyramids of Giza and the temples of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. "I was reminded of what a cardboard world we live in where things are not made to last," Pearson said.
Pearson was especially stunned by her visit to the Luxor temple. "It was one of those magical evenings," Pearson said recalling her visit. " Lining the path, palm trees swayed in the breeze. The color of the sky was a beautiful midnight blue. And I thought to myself this is truly an amazing place."

Stunning as these ancient monuments are, Pearson stresses the importance of recognizing the local people. Her only regret about her trip is that her short stay did not give her an adequate opportunity to get to know them well enough. "I was certainly reminded of how important it is to step into other peoples shoes," Pearson said. "I feel so fortunate to be able to travel and to understand different points of view as well as just appreciate some incredible antiquities, but I think what really moved me were the people."

Pearson discussed perspectives on the current turmoil in the Middle East most closely with her two guides. "They felt that too often in this country we don’t get an objective view of what is happening," Pearson said. "If we begin to use different words we indeed might diffuse the situation."

On her last night in Cairo Pearson was invited to the residence of American Ambassador David Welch. At the Ambassador’s home, she heard several influential Egyptian cabinet members and their stands on relations with the United States at a time when the possibility of war in the region is present. "One woman spoke very forcefully on the importance for westerners to try to understand the situation from the point of view of a Muslim," Pearson said. "What tends to make the press is the radicals rather than the moderates. She felt we were in a position to solve the situation and she did not feel war was the answer."
Pearson was shocked to find an incredibly small number of people visiting Egypt. "There were very few tourists when it was supposed to be the peak of the season," Pearson said. "This was very sad."

Pearson credits the small number of tourists to the attack at the Hatchepsut Temple, in which radicals opened fire on Spanish tourists in 1997. Due to safety issues, her group was guarded. She found comfort in the fact that the guards were there for the tourist’s protection. "Upon our arrival we were met by a procession of guards," Pearson said. "It felt strange to be so heavily guarded. There is no doubt the Egyptian Government takes seriously that people are protected. People do feel comfortable. Safety should not restrain visitors."

Pearson’s trip to Egypt gave her a new perspective on current world issues; she found admiration in the monuments and people alike. "To me what is important when you visit a country is to have various conversations with the people of that country rather than to just look at something from a distance. I would certainly be pleased to visit again just for the people. I highly recommend that people go," Pearson said.